Pentecost 2 May 29, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for May 29, 2016 / Pentecost 2
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
Sunday, May 29, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
I invite you to travel with me to the ancient city of Rome, to the house of an aristocratic woman named Sabina, the host in her neighborhood to a small group of Christians, no larger than 20 to 30; a group that gathers in the early morning hours on a Sunday, a work day in the ancient world; who gather at her table where there is a large loaf of bread, a terra cotta pitcher filled with wine, and a large cup. In the silence of the gathering, this story from Luke’s gospel is read aloud, a story that narrates the encounter between Jesus and a Roman army official. I wonder: why would Luke’s narrative be of interest to these Christians who lived some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus?
Perhaps it has something to do with the time and place they inhabited – for Sabina and her Christian friends lived in a city where deathly aggression was celebrated publicly in its awesome coliseum, where children grew up to be believe that bloody war games were normal and thus acceptable behaviors. Might it be that this small group of Christians were attracted to the words and actions of a Jew who condemned aggression and war, who taught that God’s will is peace and whose life was marked by non-violent resistance to the normalcy of aggression?
Is it possible that in a society marked by gender, racial, religious, and economic divisions, they were welcomed into a community that transcended such divisions and recognized the presence of God in each and every person? Would this not be a startling revelation to a slave (a non-person in that world) or to a woman (a person of second-class status legally owned by her father or her husband)?
Or could it be this: that though they were citizens of Rome, these Christians disagreed with the violence and coercion that marked the economic and military expansion of their nation and its ability to enslave other people for its own benefit? Were they relieved to hear in Luke’s story that there was at least one Roman official who treated a minority – the Jews – with unexpected mercy and surprising generosity even to the point of building their synagogue? Indeed, was this Roman centurion an exception to the rule: a truly decent human being who silently subverted the overwhelming and deathly power of the empire, an Oscar Schindler of the 1st
c. who managed to befriend the Jews of Capernaum?
Or this: did these Roman Christians know well that only those who could pay had access to physicians who might help them recover from sickness or injury? Did they recognize in this story that the healing power of Jesus was free – offered without cost – and available to anyone in need? Were they stunned by the recognition that the healing power of Jesus was offered to a slave, to a person who was viewed only as a marketable item until his or her productivity ran out? Would they begin to think that there might be something profoundly wrong with a society that heaps health benefits on the few and offers mere handouts to the many? Did this thought cross their minds: that if Jesus could heal without ever seeing the failing servant, could he not reach through the infinite distance of space and time with his healing, his life-giving presence among them?
Would they have been surprised, even delighted to hear that Jesus, a Jew who knew well the danger of befriending an enemy of his people, would honor the loyalty, the trust, the faith of this one Roman centurion?
And, then, there is the loaf of bread and large cup of wine sitting on the table. Was their eating and drinking a mere memory of someone long dead or was it for them the ordinary means through which the extraordinary presence of the risen Christ would touch their lives and nourish them with his peace-building, non-violent, inclusive, generous, and healing Presence, his very life in them a challenge to the society in which they lived? No wonder that within ten years of hearing this story, the Christian communities of Rome would experience intolerance and persecution for their refusal to give their loyalty, their faith, to an emperor and a nation that willfully abused women, stigmatized non-citizens, lusted for war, and treated the poor as mere objects. Amid the madness that had become normal and unquestioned, was the Way of Life offered by Jesus a surprising, healing, challenging, and life-sustaining alternative? It should come as no surprise to us that the answer to the question was found only a few years later when a devastating epidemic swept through the Empire, an epidemic that instilled fear and panic, that is, with one exception: the network of Christian house churches who banded together and provided food, drink, clean clothing, hygienic conditions, and – most importantly – companionship to their suffering neighbors – regardless of gender, race, or religion. While many fled and abandoned their friends and family, the early Christian bishop of Rome wrote this: “Since our earthly lives possess an eternal destiny, we have no fear of death and thus we do not hesitate to enter the mess of this world and there serve our sisters and brothers in need.” Luke’s story of healing had become their shared way of living.
But, of course, you must know that Luke’s story is less about travelling to the ancient world in which it came to birth and far more about our time and our nation, our city and our lives. For the purpose of proclaiming the gospel story, week in and week out, is to raise the question: Who or what will shape our lives and our public presence now and in the days to come? The German Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, once wrote that it is impossible to make the Christian gospel into an appealing and marketable product that can be sold from the pulpit or the newspaper. It is a story, a collection of words and actions that invite adults, invite adults, to make a decision for or against what the story asks of you and me, and make that decision again and again by coming to this altar and receiving into our lives anew the one who told the story. “We do no hesitate to enter the mess of this world, since our earthly lives possess an eternal destiny.” Does that simple declaration not spell out the word HOPE?